Human communication is a very complex process. The words that come out of our mouth are not the end-all and be-all of what we're actually trying to say. Most of the times, the messages we transmit are accompanied by what we commonly know as non-verbal communication. Verbal communication is easily identifiable because of the fact that words are mostly governed by established rules. Non-verbal communication, though, is more difficult to grasp because of almost differing rules across cultures.
The latter type of communication is an important focus of study not only because of its difficulty but also because of its prevalence in our lives. As Lynn Meade cites in her website, 93% of the messages we transmit are done so non-verbally. Non-verbal communication, we must note, comes in different forms: object communication, proxemics, chronemics, oculesics, pralangauge, and haptics. (Magister ETC, 30-34) This paper will focus on communication via touching or haptics. Haptics, aside from being a form of non-verbal communication, is a science in itself.
It deals with the underlying discipline that governs the "everyday" act of touching and the sensation it creates. It has descended from the Greek word haptein ("to fasten") and is now fast evolving into a technology that can train people to have better eye-and-hand coordination. (TechTarget) Touching is said to frequent greetings and departing messages but it has been found that it is also present during conversation (Dahl). Touch does have differing meanings. Jones and Yarbrough once came up with 18 different meanings of touch.
These meanings were then grouped into seven types: 1) positive affect - further classified into support, appreciation, inclusion, sexual interest, and affection, and relates good emotions; 2) playfulness - are touches that lighten a conversation; 3) control - guides the receivers' actions, behavior, or feelings; 4) ritual - are touches done when greeting or leaving someone; 5) hybrid - is a combination of any two or more touches previously mentioned; 6) task-related - are touches that are linked to the accomplishment of a task; and accidental touch - are those that have no specific meaning (Jones & Yarbrough, 19-20).
Some touches can admittedly be pretty hostile (like kicking or a slapping on the face) but they can also tell much about the level of intimacy between or among the people communicating. In 1974, Heslin outlined five haptic behavior categories. The categories are as follows: 1) functional/professional; 2) social/polite; 3) friendship/warmth; 4) love/intimacy; 5) sexual/arousal. These levels of intimacy have boundaries that differ from one culture to another. Though it must be noted that even within one culture, these boundaries can still be a little fuzzy.
To demonstrate how culture deeply affects the meaning-making of people when it comes to touches, let us take the act of holding hands as an example. While Americans may interpret hand holding between two men as a sign of intimate homosexual relationship, Arabs see nothing of it. Because publicly walking hand-in-hand is a common thing between Arab men, this simple act is seen simply as a sign of closeness. There are many other sample studies that demonstrate the great effect culture has on the way people perceive touching.
Remland and Jones (296) once observed different groups of people communicating and tallied the frequency with which they touched each other. The result yields the fact that Italians (14%) and Greeks (12. 5%) touch more than the English (8%) and French (5%) counterparts. Cultural differences do abound all of us. This is why Edward Hall came up with what he coins as “high context” and “low context” cultures. Jennifer E. Beer says that these terms are “used to describe broad-brush cultural differences between societies”.
The two “types” of cultures differ in that low-context cultural settings only bear witness to loose, short-term, and compartmentalized relationships; while high-context settings have relationships that are dense, long-term, and strong. (Beer) Because of the fact that these cultural differences exist, haptics has also differentiated between cultures that have high occurrences of touching (high context) and ones that do not (low context). A high context culture refers to culture where it is assumed that members are already aware of the cultural rules.
In this type of context, what is expected of the cultural members is not necessarily verbalized or outlined in a rule book. Edward Hall further defines high context culture as culture where "most of the information is either in the physical context or initialized in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message". This only means that many things are undefined and contextual cues will be related subtly. Eastern cultures, where demographics are almost the same across cultures, are usually of high context.
These cultures are also defined by a strong sense of tradition and history, with very minimal changes over time. This almost permanent cultural tradition is what solidifies the rules and expectations. On the other hand, a low context culture is prevalent in societies that put a high regard on individuality. As such, traditions change from time to time depending on the things they value the most: facts, figures, and honesty. Because of the changing "rules", a low-context culture clearly states in words the societal expectations.
This type of culture does not place much importance on inferences and context cues. Hall further defines communication in this context as such: "the mass of information is vested in the explicit code". There are some lists referring to touching, non-touching, and even “middle ground” countries. Hall puts down the following reference: Non-touching countries: Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Australia Middle ground countries: France, China, India Touching countries: Middle East, Latin Countries, Italy This list, though, is in no way conclusive.
This, we can safely say, is just a partial list. There are far too many countries worldwide and it is hard to pinpoint whether they are “touching” or “non-touching” countries. Indeed, it really is hard to memorize just how touchy one can be with somebody especially since levels of intimacy have really blurry lines, even within one culture. Also, as Concentric. net writes, differences among cultures occur in at least three different levels.
Even with a pre-defined context, structures and details of cultural contexts still vary. Concentric. net explains: it is a well-known fact that a crowded elevator can produce a lot of accidental or unintentional touches. But what is not well-known is when an elevator volume can already be considered “crowded”. The Swedish discard touching when an elevator is already brimming with people. The Portuguese, though, would already consider an elevator crowded even with just half of a really packed elevator cubicle. (Concentric. net)
Business people take time getting to know this kind of communication as knowledge of it does come in handy when doing business. Yet even for people who are not in the business industry, it will do well to actually put into mind rules regarding touching. Though communication is a two-ways process where the people involved have to adjust with each other, it would not do harm if one is to actually take the initiative getting to know the "touching" standards of a culture: the only way to gain respect is to also render respect.